The risks and challenges of asbestos removal in the aviation sector
When many of us think about the now-notorious, carcinogenic mineral known as asbestos, it might not initially appear to us that the aviation industry was a heavy user of this substance – and yet, that was once very much the case.
For the bulk of the 20th century, asbestos was used in many aircraft parts and other items used throughout the aviation sector, ranging from aircraft brake systems, gaskets, and valves to asbestos gloves and fabrics, and even repairing equipment.
There are good reasons why the importation and use of asbestos in the UK has been banned since 1999, with similar restrictions having been put in place around the world.
When someone inhales asbestos, they can be at elevated risk of subsequently developing a potentially fatal asbestos-related disease – such as mesothelioma or asbestos-related lung cancer – possibly many decades after their exposure to the material.
As public knowledge of the health risks posed by asbestos grew during the 1980s, steps were made to phase out the material’s use in aircraft parts.
But with the peak period of asbestos use in the aviation industry having seen the material used in almost every part of a typical aircraft due to its heat-resistant qualities, the issue of asbestos risk in aviation settings is sadly not a mere “historical” one.
Asbestos continues to be present in many airplanes dating from before the time asbestos ceased to be used in this industry – and of course, new cases of asbestos-related disease are still emerging.
So, if you are involved in the aviation sector and you are looking to ensure safe and responsible asbestos removal, what are some of the key things you need to know?
Historical use of asbestos in the aviation sector
Asbestos began to be mined for commercial purposes in the middle of the 19th century. For much of the ensuing 20th century, the material saw extensive use in common aviation-sector products ranging from composite materials and adhesives to insulating products and cutting fluids.
Aircraft brake systems were a particular focus for the use of asbestos – at one point, asbestos made up about 16% to 23% of the content of such systems.
This widespread use of asbestos put all manner of professionals working in the aviation industry – such as aircraft handlers, aircraft mechanics, aerospace engineers, and supply chain workers – at risk of coming into contact with, and breathing in, the material.
As aforementioned, amid increasing awareness of the dangers that asbestos presented to health, and associated political pressure, bans and restrictions began to be imposed on the use of the material in aviation.
These included the UK finally banning the substance from being imported and used in 1999, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issuing widespread limits on its use.
Risks and challenges associated with asbestos in aircraft
There is sadly a wide range of ways in which aviation professionals and passengers alike can potentially come into direct contact with asbestos, and therefore be exposed to its adverse health effects.
Among those at greatest risk are aircraft maintenance technicians – otherwise known as mechanics – who are responsible for the day-to-day, general upkeep and safety of commercial, military, and private planes. Historically, it was these aviation workers who were usually exposed to asbestos as a result of directly handling components during routine repair work.
As we mentioned above, brake systems on planes were a particular focus for asbestos use, with aircraft brakes having been made from asbestos prior to the 1970s. In order to replace aircraft brake pads, there is a need to constantly manipulate and tug back and forth – a combination of actions that presents a high risk of asbestos fibres being released into the air, and subsequently breathed in.
Another factor that can heighten the risk of asbestos exposure from a plane for aviation workers and passengers alike, is the tendency for asbestos products to deteriorate in condition over time. This, too, can increase the likelihood of the release of individual asbestos fibres, which cannot be discerned by the human eye.
Fortunately, for today’s aircraft mechanics working on newer planes, the risk of asbestos exposure will not be a major concern. Although several companies that formerly made asbestos products for use in aviation are still in business, they have ceased to use such products, in order to avoid liability and litigation.
However, people working on older planes including older parts that are likely to contain asbestos, should be alert to the risks and protect themselves accordingly.
Asbestos management and removal strategies
The extremely wide range of asbestos products that saw use in the aviation sector, and that may continue to be present across aviation facilities and in planes to this day, makes it of critical importance to put in place the most responsible measures for asbestos management.
A key point of reference for many in the aviation sector in this regard will be the UK’s Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, or CAR 2012. These rules put in place a “duty to manage” asbestos, directed at those who manage non-domestic premises, such as airports and hangar facilities where older planes may be stored, maintained and/or repaired.
CAR 2012 stipulates various requirements for dutyholders for such premises to comply with. These include taking reasonable steps to determine whether asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) are present on the given site – and if so, the location, condition, and amount of such materials.
If an aviation-industry building for which you are the dutyholder was constructed prior to the year 2000, you should presume that it contains asbestos, unless you know for sure that this is not the case.
If you are indeed unsure whether asbestos is present in the building, it will be necessary to collect any previous information you can find about the asbestos situation on the premises.
From there, you will be able to arrange to have an asbestos management survey carried out at the site, so that you can detect any ACMs and make decisions on whether to manage any asbestos “in situ”, or have it removed altogether.
In the event of asbestos being found in a given UK non-domestic property, it is not always automatically the case that it must be removed. It might be possible to comply with the regulations by leaving the ACMs in place and monitoring them over time.
However, in cases where the asbestos materials are likely to pose a high risk to health – for example, if they are in poor condition or in a location where they are likely to be disturbed – you may instead decide to have the ACMs removed.
If you do decide to have the asbestos materials removed, it is important to appreciate that most asbestos removal work in the UK will need to be done by a contractor who holds a licence from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
In addition, you must ensure that any worker who is liable to disturb asbestos during their day-to-day work has received the necessary training to enable them to work in a way that maintains their own safety, and that of other people nearby.
Best practices for asbestos removal in the aviation sector
If you are to looking to remove asbestos from an aviation-industry setting such as aircraft or premises, you will need to ensure that whatever you do, you remain compliant with all relevant aviation regulations and guidelines. It will also be crucial to coordinate asbestos removal efforts between airlines, maintenance facilities, and regulatory bodies.
To mitigate the risks associated with asbestos removal in the aviation sector, it is advisable for the below control measures to be implemented:
- Thorough risk assessment. You should be looking to ensure that comprehensive surveys are carried out in order to identify asbestos-containing materials (ACMs), in addition to assessing the risks that such materials could pose.
- Containment and isolation. The implementation of strict containment procedures – including the use of sealed enclosures and negative pressure systems – will allow for the prevention of any further dangerous spread of asbestos fibres.
- Safe work practices. For this sensitive work, it is crucial to hire trained and qualified asbestos removal specialists who will follow strict protocols in relation to the handling of ACMs. Such procedures include proper handling techniques, wet methods, and correct disposal procedures.
- Personal protective equipment (PPE). Workers must be provided with appropriate PPE, such as respiratory protection, disposable coveralls, and gloves, so that they can minimise any direct contact they have with asbestos fibres.
- Air monitoring. Arranging for regular air monitoring will help detect any lingering airborne asbestos fibres, and will allow you to verify the effectiveness of your asbestos control measures.
Addressing the challenge of asbestos removal in aviation
Asbestos removal in the aviation industry is a complex challenge, necessitating attention and action. The aviation sector must prioritise not only safely identifying ACMs, but also – where required – the safe removal of the dangerous substance, in order to protect the health of workers, passengers, and the environment.
This is highly specialised and sensitive work, with a need for collaboration between aviation authorities, facility managers, aircraft manufacturers, and specialised asbestos removal companies.
Furthermore, efforts should be made to put in place ongoing training and education programmes, so that all personnel involved are aware of the risks, and properly equipped to handle all manner of asbestos-related situations.
While the processes involved in managing and removing asbestos in the aviation industry will have many similarities to the processes in other industries, it is also important to be mindful of the ways in which they may differ. Aviation, after all, is a highly specialised industry, with particular asbestos risks likely to be posed by older planes and premises.
Are you in need of advice and support in relation to any of a wide range of circumstances involving the identification, management, and/or removal of asbestos? If so, please don’t hesitate to email the Oracle Solutions team for a fast and free quote, or to call our team today.
Written by Jess Scott
Jess Scott has been an all-round asbestos consultant since 1996. That’s nearly 3 decades of asbestos knowledge. He spends his time sharing that knowledge with the team at Oracle and with their clients. Jess's goal is, and always has been, to use my expertise in helping people to comply with the law. This legal compliance ultimately helps to protect everyone from the harmful effects of asbestos. Jess has acted as an asbestos expert witness in legal cases and is involved in many asbestos educational activities throughout the UK.